Confessions of a “media hog”

by Andrew Maynard on March 26, 2009

There are some things they don’t cover in media training, like giving interviews while suffering from stomach flu, talking to reporters thousands of miles away while on a dodgy cell phone connection, or speaking intelligently while your three-year-old niece runs rings around your legs.  It’s probably because they come under the “so bloody stupid no one would ever think to advise you not to do these things” category.  Yet sometimes we find ourselves in these uncharted waters.  Which is why Tom Mackenzie’s otherwise strong piece in today’s Guardian on nanotechnology in China ended up with less than perfect input from yours truly!

Rather than rant about the injustices perpetrated by scientific illiterates and the opportunistic press though, I’m breaking with tradition today and admitting that the fault probably lies with me…

Mackenzie’s piece addresses the rise of China as a major international player in the emerging field of nanotechnology.  It’s an important piece, and one that needs to be taken seriously. Given China’s recent track record on product safety, it rightly balances coverage of technical and commercial advances with concerns over possible health issues.  But here’s where things get a little skewed.  Tom writes:

Underlying these developments are serious safety concerns. Nanoparticles are so small they are easily inhaled and absorbed through the skin. Dr Andrew Maynard, the chief science advisor to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, says that some nanoparticles could be deadly. “Nothing has yet been confirmed, but there are strong suggestions that inhaling these particles could cause lung cancer or lung disease,” he says. “If carbon nanotubes behave anything like asbestos, we won’t know what the health impacts are for about 20 years, because that’s how long it can take from exposure to the onset of the disease.”

Flagging up these concerns is essential—nanotechnology is leading to novel materials that could well cause harm in novel ways, unless we work out ahead of time how to use them safely.  But the paragraph is a tad on the misleading side.  Nanoparticles are NOT easily absorbed through the skin (the skin is actually pretty good at keeping them out of the body).  And to say that some nanoparticles could be deadly confuses an already complex issue.  Yes, there are serious concerns over materials like long thin multi-walled carbon nanotubes. But plenty of nanoparticles are likely to be no more harmful than their non-nanoscale counterparts.

The issue here though is that I was Tom’s source on nanotechnology safety, and I screwed it up—I wasn’t sufficiently clear or focused to provide him with the information he needed to place the story in a sound, science-based context.

I’m not beating myself up over this (too much).  It happens, and in many cases less-than-perfect science coverage in the media gets absorbed into the bigger story and evens out over time—the biggest impacts being dented pride and the derision of one’s colleagues.

But that’s no excuse for sloppy communication. Poor science in the media muddies issues, and at worst can lead to misinformed and potentially damaging decisions being made. Yet an absence of science coverage leaves us in an even worse position.  Which means that scientists need to know how the media works, and their role in ensuring stories are founded on science reality rather than speculation.

So, mea culpa in this instance. At the end of the day, the better we as scientists communicate to—and through—journalists, the better equipped people will be to make informed judgments.

As they say, “practice makes perfect.” Next question, please?

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